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Atmosphere, Climate



In 1963, Dave Dudley's song, "Six Days on the Road," stayed at No. 2 on the country charts for two weeks. A snippet of lyrics goes like this:

Well I'm a little overweight and my log book's way behind
But nothin' bothers me tonight I can dodge all the scales alright
Six days on the road and I'm a gonna make it home tonight
Well my rig's a little old but that don't mean she's slow
There's a flame from her stack and that smoke's a blowin' black as coal

This popular 60s song romanticizes trucking. At the time, most people probably gave little thought to the soot coming from exhaust. This soot is made up of microscopic carbon particles released during the incomplete combustion of fossil fuels. Soot is also produced by forest fires. Soot, we now understand, is hazardous to our health and is suspected of contributing to global warming.

Soot has only recently been identified as a major player in the loss of ice and snow in the polar regions. This is an important topic for discussion, research and understanding, and is particularly relevant during the International Polar Year. Using ice core research, the Desert Research Institute (DRI), found that between 1880 and 1950 the amount of soot on Greenland's glaciers and ice sheets had significantly increased. In addition, there was seven times more soot from industrial sources than from forest fires. The research revealed that soot increased dramatically in winter months when forest fires were at a minimum. Research by McConnell et. al. (2007) at DRI indicated that the industrial areas of Canada and the United States were the most likely sources of the increased soot contamination in Greenland. (Source: McConnell et al, 20th-Century Industrial Black Carbon Emissions Altered Arctic Climate Forcing, Science Express, August 9, 2007 - see:

Normally, snow and ice, because of their light color, are good reflectors of sunlight. This is known as the albedo effect. However, soot-covered snow and ice absorbs the sun's energy and speeds up melting. The Earth's surface warms even more as the snow and ice melts, exposing the darker rocks and soil beneath.

Soot also alters regional climate. The Environmental Literacy Council states that soot in the atmosphere absorbs sunlight, heats surrounding air and reduces the amount of sunlight reaching the ground. This contributes to a cooler surface. The warmer air then creates an unstable atmosphere with rising air forming clouds and rainfall in areas with heavy soot concentrations. This rising air is counterbalanced by sinking air in adjacent regions, resulting in fewer clouds and less rain. An example of this phenomenon is in southern and northern China. Soot and other pollutants have led to increased rainfall and flooding in Southern China, while northern China has seen sinking air, dust storms and drought.

Airborne soot is transported thousands of miles. Pollution from South Asia, a major contributor of soot, has been transported to the North Pole and Greenland.



Assuming that 25 percent of observed global warming is due to soot contamination, soot may be an important part of addressing global climate change. It is posited that curbing soot contamination may be cheaper than controlling carbon dioxide, which stays in the atmosphere much longer than soot. Your team has been approached to study this matter. Would it be a better policy in the short term to focus on the reduction of soot instead of concentrating on reining in carbon dioxide? What is your recommendation and why?


Date: 5/23/2010

Scenario Images:

Soot and Ice
NASA's research suggests that soot is contributing to changes happening at the North Pole, for example,increasing melting of sea ice and snow and warming atmospheric temperatures. Click here for animation.



Carbonaceous Aerosols and Climate Change (Cycle A)
"They can absorb light or scatter it. They are present in the atmosphere because of the incomplete combustion of fossil fuels. Now they are thought to have a significant effect on global warming. But until just 10 or 15 years ago, the scientific community did not accept that carbonaceous aerosol particles were common in the atmosphere. That they accept this idea now is thanks to the work of a research group, led by Tihomir Novakov at Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory (Berkeley Lab), which has been studying these particles since the 1970s."

From: EETD Newsletter
Summer 2004
pg. 9
Carbonaceous Aerosols and Climate Change: How Researchers Proved Black Carbon is a Significant Force in the Atmosphere


Aerosols May Drive a Significant Portion of Arctic Warming (Cycle A)
"Though greenhouse gases are invariably at the center of discussions about global climate change, new NASA research suggests that much of the atmospheric warming observed in the Arctic since 1976 may be due to changes in tiny airborne particles called aerosols."


Black and White: Soot on Ice (Cycle A)
This NASA site includes a graphic that depicts the impact of how polar ice reflects solar rays. It also depicts the absorption of solar energy when the ice melts.


Black Carbon Pollution Major Factor in Global Warming (Cycle A)
"Black carbon, a form of particulate air pollution most often produced from burning biomass, cooking with solid fuels and diesel exhaust, has a warming effect in the atmosphere that is three to four times greater than prevailing estimates, according to a new study published online in the journal Nature Geoscience."

This site provides links to other black soot resource.

See also: Black Carbon Pollution Emerges as Major Player in Global Warming. This story from UC San Diego discusses the warming effects of black carbon.


Black Carbon Website by EPA (Cycle A)
This EPA website includes background information on black carbon, how it is affecting climate, and mitigation efforts. Also included is a 2012 report to Congress on black carbon, which includes an extensive overview of the effects of black carbon on climate (Chapter 2) and several chapters on mitigation strategies.


Getting dirty with black carbon (Cycle A)
Climate change discussions often focus on carbon dioxide, but another major culprit gets unleashed every time a truck drives on diesel fuel.


Control of fossil fuel particulate black carbon and organic matter. (Cycle B)
"Under the 1997 Kyoto Protocol, no control of black carbon (BC) was considered.
Here, it is found, through simulations in which 12 identifiable effects of aerosol particles on climate are treated, that any emission reduction of fossil-fuel (f.f.) particulate BC plus associated organic matter (OM) may slow global warming more than may any emission reduction of CO2 or CH4 for a specific period."

From: JOURNAL OF GEOPHYSICAL RESEARCH, VOL. 107, NO. D19, 4410, doi:10.1029/2001JD001376, 2002
Control of fossil-fuel particulate black carbon and organic matter,
possibly the most effective method of slowing global warming
Mark Z. Jacobson
Department of Civil and Environmental Engineering, Stanford University, Stanford, California, USA
Received 9 October 2001; revised 5 February 2002; accepted 12 April 2002; published 15 October 2002.


2015 NASA Study: Scientists Link Earlier Melting of Snow to Dark Aerosols (Cycle B)
In a 2015 study, NASA scientists used a climate model to examine the impact of this snow-darkening phenomenon on Northern Hemisphere snowpacks, including how it affects snow amount and heating on the ground in spring.


Air Pollution as a Climate Forcing: A Workshop (Cycle B)
From the Goddard Institute for Space Studies, a compilation of NASA research articles: "How do aerosols affect climate? Human activities, especially fuel combustion for energy production and land clearing, emit particles to the atmosphere. These particles are similar to carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases because their atmospheric concentrations have increased greatly since the Industrial Revolution, and because they impose changes on the energy balance of the planet. Unlike greenhouse gases, these particles have environmental effects beyond altering climate: they directly affect regional air quality and the health of people and ecosystems in source regions."


"A new NASA climate study has found that large amounts of black carbon (soot) particles and other pollutants are causing changes in precipitation and temperatures over China and may be at least partially responsible for the tendency toward increased floods and droughts in those regions over the last several decades."


Black Carbon, by the Environmental Literacy Council (Cycle B)
"Scientists have begun to recognize soot as having the potential to cause changes in climate. Soot absorbs sunlight and, therefore, heats the surrounding air, also reducing the amount of sunlight that reaches the ground, resulting in a cooler surface."

This site contains links to other sources such as the health impacts from particulate matter.


NASA YouTube Visualization of Particles (Cycle B)
An interesting visualization of atmospheric particles to include dust, black carbon, sulfates and sea salt.


Soot and Global Warming (Cycle B)
NASA's Earth Observatory graphs depict changes in temperatures from 1880 to 2002. Climate models suggest 25% of the change may come from black soot contamination.


Reflectivity of Greenland Ice Sheet in late summer hit new low in 2014 (Cycle C)
The Arctic Report Card: Update for 2014 states that the Greenland Ice Sheet's overall 2014 summer reflectivity was the second lowest (exceeded only by 2012) since MODIS [satellite instrument] records began in the year 2000. August 2014 reflectivity dipped to especially low levels at high elevations. Such low reflectivity values had not previously been observed so late in summer during the MODIS period.


Sample Investigations:


Earth Science Gallery Provides Animations (Cycle A)
These animations can be used to demonstrate the loss of sea ice, the impact of black soot on ice, the albedo effect and the soot that comes from South Asia. The active links to the animations are located at the bottom of this page or link here:

Ice Albedo: Bright White Reflects Light
Ice Albedo: Black Soot and Snow
Ice Albedo - Global View
Haze over China, Shenzhen
Difficulty: beginner


Lessons and Activities from GISS pertaining to Climate (Cycle A)
The Goddard Institute for Space Studies hosts a site with excellent activities for students to study such issues as climate, carbon, clouds, greenhouse effect, aerosols, albedo and energy.

Of particular interest to the black carbon module are the sections on albedo,(scroll down to Models and Simulations), Urban Health and Aerosol Measurement,and the Global Equilibrium Energy Balance Interactive Tinker Toy (GEEBITT)
Difficulty: intermediate


International Program For Students to Measure Black Soot (Cycle B)
This international program provides the methods to build a black soot monitoring device and then to submit observations to a central database. While the active student work on the program appears to have ended, this site contains some good information on measuring black carbon. Click on the "school-based measurement program" link to access the site.

Difficulty: beginner


Investigate Black Carbon With NOAA's Science on a Sphere (SOS) (Cycle B)
Utilizing Google Earth to display SOS data dramatically broadens the audience exposed to NOAA's Earth System science by making it possible for anyone to interact with a virtual version of SOS. Download black carbon data into Google Earth.
Difficulty: beginner


How to Sample Black Carbon Air Pollution Using a Vacuum Cleaner (Cycle C)
"Several types of classroom activities are presented here. The first one is an ELSI debate. The second activity is a role-playing scenario. Both of these are suitable for middle and high school students. The third activity is a soot analysis experiment designed to test air samples for black-carbon pollution. It is best suited for high school students with a good understanding of basic algebra; however, younger students also can participate in activities as described below."
Difficulty: beginner


Pollution: Muck, Stink and Poison (Cycle C)
From's Kids Channel. Activities for younger students to learn about pollution. See also Nature Info for other links on pollution.

Difficulty: beginner




  • Science
    National Science Education Standards - Science Content Standards The science content standards outline what students should know, understand, and be able to do in the natural sciences over the course of K-12 education.
      • Science as Inquiry (Std A)
        • Abilities necessary to do scientific inquiry
        • Understanding about scientific inquiry
      • Science and Technology (Std E)
        • Abilities of technological design
      • Science in Personal and Social Perspectives (Std F)
        • Personal health
        • Populations, resources, and environments
        • Natural hazards
        • Risks and benefits
      • Science as Inquiry (Std A)
        • Abilities necessary to do scientific inquiry
        • Understanding about scientific inquiry
      • Science and Technology (Std E)
        • Abilities of technological design
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